Thai turmoil escalates as troops hit streets

Security forces were mobilized for the first time since 2006 as violence escalates – two people died in street clashes Monday.

Vivek Prakash/Reuters
OUTRAGE: Protesters in Bangkok have fought back against security forces mobilized Sunday to contain intensifying antigovernment riots. Here, a "red shirt" throws a weapon at police.

Troops have begun to repel antigovernment protesters in the Thai capital after a state of emergency was declared Sunday, marking a major flashpoint in a protracted crisis.

Soldiers fired live rounds Monday to disperse crowds of red-shirted protesters, who used taxis and buses as barricades. Hospitals treated dozens of injured civilians and soldiers, including from gunshot wounds, though military officials deny that troops are firing into crowds. Sporadic clashes continued all day and are expected to intensify under the cover of night. Two people have been reported killed in clashes between protesters and residents.

"Red shirt" leaders loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra are calling for a national uprising to oust a shaky coalition government, which has staked its future on the crackdown. Protesters have blockaded roads and railways in several towns across north and northeast Thailand.

By sending troops onto the streets for the first time since a coup in 2006, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva is trying to avoid the fate of his two predecessors, who failed last year to suppress round-the-clock demonstrations. The state of emergency empowers security forces to disperse large protests, detain civilians, and censor the media.

But the move risks widening rifts in a nation polarized by three years of political paralysis. It may also be running up against reluctance from the powerful military to become the villains of the drama, amid speculation of divided loyalties.

Security forces hold back

While Mr. Abhisit has insisted that he has taken charge and that order will be restored, troops have so far avoided the protesters' main encampment at a government compound. That raises doubts over the security forces' backing for Abhisit and of his longevity in the hot seat, says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consulting firm in Bangkok.

"It looks as though some of the military and police and other backers are less than happy with Abhisit, so they may be letting him twist in the wind," he says.

Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Abhisit, says he is being briefed frequently on the situation and is issuing instructions to a military-civilian coordinating body. He says it may take several days to contain all the protests in Bangkok and that authorities in other provinces had requested emergency powers, though none had been granted.

On Saturday, Abhisit cancelled a summit for Asian leaders in Pattaya after hundreds of red-shirted protesters stormed the delegations' hotel. He had earlier assured foreign leaders that tightened security around the venue was sufficient to deal with any disruption, but soldiers put up little resistance to the unarmed protesters.

The meeting was to have seen the signing of an investment agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Thailand is the current chair. Its humiliating breakdown prompted the crackdown.

"To do nothing, it would be over for the government. But enforcing the emergency decree isn't easy. We don't have a good record on this," says Mr. Panitan.

During last year's protests, two declarations of emergency fizzled, as security forces shied away from confrontations with demonstrators. Military commanders said at the time that their troops were neutral and instead asked the then-government to resign, as it eventually did after a controversial judicial ruling ordering three parties in the ruling coalition to be disbanded.

The chaos in Pattaya, and a violent attack Sunday by red shirts who stormed the interior ministry in Bangkok, come just four months after Abhisit took office. At the time his appointment relieved business groups, which had been alarmed by the nation's paralysis. As leader of the Democrat Party, the British-educated economist was also palatable to royal and military elites who opposed Mr. Thaksin, a brash businessman who is currently a fugitive from Thai justice.

That calculation may still hold, as the likely alternative is a military government that dispenses with the fig leaf of democracy, says Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"If the powers that be really think they can put this thing down and that over the long haul they can keep down the people that Thaksin has mobilized, the Democrats will still be a good front," he says.

Thaksin supporters say they are fighting to restore democracy that was hijacked by the 2006 coup. During his five years in power, however, Thaksin was himself intolerant of dissent. Critics say he used executive power to dismantle constitutional checks on his authority and was intent on remaking Thailand's economy to enrich himself.

Starting to play hardball

In recent weeks, Thaksin has used video link to address nightly outdoor rallies of the red shirts, also known as the United Front of Democrats against Dictatorship (UDD). Rural and urban workers are the backbone of the movement, which began in response to the coup and has broadened its appeal beyond loyalty to Thaksin.

Until last week, its followers had sought to distance themselves from the frequently violent protests and occupations held last year by anti-Thaksin forces. But Thaksin has now urged his supporters to march on the capital, declaring in a video address Sunday that he would return to lead them if necessary. "Now that they have tanks on the street and the soldiers are coming out, so it is time for the people to come out for a revolution," he said.

UDD leaders have also spoken privately of their wish to provoke unrest and force their opponents' hand to foment wider antigovernment dissent.

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